PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

The Origins and Value of Contact Improvisation in the Words of Steve Paxton

Episode Summary

In this episode hosted by Jennifer Edwards, the history, practice, and importance of Contact Improvisation is explored through a revelatory 1998 conversation with the movement's founder, Steve Paxton.

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow Archives. I’m Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation, and it’s my pleasure to introduce Pillow Scholar Jennifer Edwards, who is also the director/producer of PillowVoices. She will be your host for this exploration of Contact Improvisation, a contemporary movement and performance practice. 

JENNIFER EDWARDS: If you are a fan of dance, but you’re not a dancer, the term “Contact Improvisation” may be new to you. However, much of the surprising partnering and innovative lifting that we see in contemporary dance today stems directly from this practice. Here is Pillow Scholar Maura Keefe in conversation with Steve Paxton, who is generally acknowledged as the founder of Contact Improvisation. 

MAURA KEEFE: Lots of modern dance companies now use contact improvisation as a means of coming up with material that then gets set. Bill T. Jones does it in his work, David Dorfman, Susan Marshall, as some of you are going to see her work tonight, you, you might see things that look like they're set forms of this. And I'm wondering what you think about it as a tool for choreography?

STEVE PAXTON: I think it's a good idea. As long as I don't have to do it. 

MAURA KEEFE: But do you think that it's, it’s respectful to the form and the ideas of it? 

STEVE PAXTON: Not at all. No, no, no, it's not about that. It's about that it's useful and, and it works. And time is short for choreography, so if this is a, a tool that they can use, and it's useful, then that's great. The other thing is that the lifts are going to be a, to be safer on both bodies because they're, if, if they're following these principles, then lifts sometimes are. So it seems like it might be good.

JENNIFER EDWARDS: In order to understand contact improvisation (also known as “contact improv,” or even just “contact”) , first we must explore the term improvisation. Now, most people have an idea of how jazz music uses improvisation or extemporization. Jazz musicians train in the theory of music, chords, and scales, learning specific notated pieces of music so that they can play in a free-form manner. They do this so that they can depart from the written score and riff on themes within a given piece of music, playing freestyle together, while adhering to certain structures that we recognize as jazz – things like syncopated rhythms and musicians taking turns leading or soloing – kind of one-upping each other to move the music forward. 

Theater and comedy have similar practices where actors put aside their scripts but stay in character – relying on instinct to move a scene along together, without a pre-created text to follow. So too in dance we have developed the ability to leave the learned choreography of a piece and play with movement within a style or form. Contact improvisation relies on dancers staying physically connected or touching one another. It uses counterbalance and weight sharing between two or more people to allow for bodies to move together through space – spontaneously. Here again are Steve Paxton and Maura Keefe. 

STEVE PAXTON: See, the touch thing is magic. That's the whole point of it. The touch and the weight shift, it is a, a really fast communication. And as I feel like we're dealing in milliseconds here with some of these events, that it's very interesting to me that the skin is able to translate it into reaction as quickly as it can.

JENNIFER EDWARDS: There is, I need to state, an undercurrent in this form that might inadvertently allow for inappropriate touch, or for physical manipulation without consent. And so when we hear about a utopic ideal of contact, I do think we need to understand that gender, race, ethnicity, and religious beliefs play huge roles in setting the group agreements for a contact improv session. This has been an issue and a subject for dialogue within the community for years and is still a point of deep tension and pain for those who love contact improv, like I do, but know the door it can open for those who might use it as cover to abuse others. 

Here Paxton talks about the beginnings of this form – note the all-male group which initiated this structure and therefore, perhaps the assumptions about touch and privilege that were at play. We’ll then go on to Paxton speaking of the third partner in the practice – that is the form itself.

MAURA KEEFE: Which is a nice segue then to contact improvisation. And you're saying that it came out of that time...

STEVE PAXTON: It came out of Grand Union. We were in residence at Oberlin College, I saw that there were a number of young men and this was a winter term kind of thing where people just volunteered to be in it and, you know, sort of out of school time. So I set a men's class and I had never taught such a thing before, and I decided to teach a kind of, a gymnastic throwing your weight around solo, but I realized I would have to figure out how to communicate what kept me safe in this or what would keep them safe in it. So then I started digging through all my physical knowledge and decided that really the major issue was how to open up the senses to the movement. The movement was going to be random, improvised and rough, and it was going to be done on a mat so there wasn't a kind of falling problem, but in a way that freed us to be a bit more relaxed about what we were actually doing. So I wanted the senses quite acute. I wanted the sphere around the bodies to be quite lively. I wanted people working all the way to the periphery of their vision. I wanted them able to fall, I wanted them able to bump into each other without, you know, and, and know how to do it. I wanted to, them to be able to roll on the mat, so if they fell they could translate that toppling into a, a movement that agreed with the surface that they were falling onto. They took the force parallel to it, things like that. So I learned how to teach these things, found out that people were, in fact, pleased to learn them and wanted more. And that wanting more is what finally got us to contact improvisation. That's why it's called something like contact improvisation because there is a third entity between the two dancers. It's really a kind of, the leader is the movement. So once it gets into momentum, the, you, you very clearly have something to follow, which is neither one of you leading. It is the momentum that has been established. It's the reality that you're in that is the entity, the flow, the danger, the survival of the graceful capitulation to whatever event occurs. 

MAURA KEEFE: But to the, the third partner, not either one of the...

STEVEN PAXTON: The third partner is the contact improvisation, the unit that is created by these two people.

JENNIFER EDWARDS: Ok, that may seem incredibly abstract, however there is a deeper, more established reference point for this type of approach to movement. When I stumbled upon this interview with Steve Paxton, I was excited to share it. I have loved participating in contact improvisation sessions, I’ve used this practice in my own choreography and movement direction and I’ve taught semesters-long courses in contact improv within universities. 

In my years working with this form, my understanding of its origins extended only to the Judson Church movement – to the late 1960s and early 1970s. I knew that this was a form that came from a time when people like Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon and Steve Paxton collaborated in a church basement in New York City’s Greenwich Village, breaking down many of the structures of modern dance. However, hidden in plain sight were the real origins of contact improvisation. Let’s listen again to Steve Paxton. 

STEVE PAXTON: I made it for dancers.


STEVE PAXTON: In a way, I assumed dancers, and I assumed also bridges in it from dance toward the martial arts. Which I thought, at that time, were going to be quite incredible influence on Western dance because the movement attitude is not one of aesthetics. It's about life and death encounter and the most efficient movements to not only build certain strengths that in a, in a fight you, you might use, but also the whole design of the body is not about, you know, Louis XIV’s sense of loft and elevation and prettiness. ...lots and lots of, do you know the Aikido roll? This diagonal Japanese martial art roll. It's extraordinary, it's got so much information in it, but, I, I, it wasn’t well taught at the Aikido Studio either I have to say, you know, you just kind of picked it up. 

MAURA KEEFE: So what, why is it important to contact improvisation?

STEVEN PAXTON: Without that kind of information falling down probably would have clobbered us. You know, one of the… 

MAURA KEEFE: It’s interesting here that you're on mats, which nobody seems to use anymore.

STEVEN PAXTON: Well, some do. I mean, I certainly would if I was working with beginners. And I would certainly do it if I was working with ballet dancers, for instance, who are very skinny and rolling around on the floor is, is torture for them. I mean, it's, it's you have to be sensible about…

MAURA KEEFE: So, what's different for, in a diagonal roll of an Aikido roll versus like a somersault that everybody did in gym?

STEVEN PAXTON: Oh, it's hard to demonstrate with a mic on, but I'll just say that you hit the form, right, you hit this, this diagonal stretch across your back. So I'm stretching from my little finger to the sitz bone and this, this knee actually. I’m on this knee and I got this foot up, and then when I roll, I just kind of pour the weight forward, continue that extension. And I come, I, during the whole roll, you know, over this pathway, I don't change the shape and I come up and I'm in exactly the same shape. Now just for one item, that is a very unusual kind of movement. That you roll the whole physical body in one, you know, design and, just that. And this gentle stretch, you know, this is the stretch of the handshake kind of, you know, where you're about ready to take somebody's hand and ready to give them energy at the same time. It's like, or an embrace, that kind of energy, light, really sensitive, extended. And that seems from Aikido to be a real message of, of extension and stretch as a safety factor. And if you have that or if you learn it, then instead of falling and contracting and presenting bony bits to hit the floor, you're extending toward it, you're presenting curves and you're able, as I said before, in, in just falling, toppling and rolling, you're able to harmonize with the inevitable plane that you're going to have to contend with. You know, the floor is a plane and you can contend with it by topple or crash, you know, or you can roll along it, which requires extension and the rounding design of the movement is different.

JENNIFER EDWARDS: So why are dancers offered this notion of an entirely new approach to dance, rather than simply a heightened awareness of the influences that various movement forms, martial arts for example, can have on the human body? Well, here Paxton speaks of the value that he, along with many others we consider pioneers in dance, placed on the colonial idea of codifying and owning ways of moving to then teach them to others. 

STEVE PAXTON: What Cunningham and the other modern dancers, the kind of permission that they gave me sort of starting dancing from the late 50s was an example of creating forms. Because I'm thinking of Nikolais and Graham and Limón and Humphrey and Merce and, oh, any number of people, you know, Katherine Dunham, to Tamiris-Nagrin, on and on, these people who created forms. So that's one of the major sort of accomplishments in a way, is this, really in only 100 years, we've established different ways of making dance and the permission to create sort of from the ground up.

JENNIFER EDWARDS: Now, I’m not suggesting that contact hasn’t radically changed how we approach movement or how humans can interact. This practice has been used in recent decades by dancers and choreographers to break down personal barriers and challenge the laws of physics. That is a powerful and important undertaking. 

Contact provides a way of moving with others that people find not only helpful in creating dance pieces but also healing and restoring human relationships. Research in contact improvisation by psychotherapists and physical and occupational therapists has indicated that practicing the basics of contact improvisation can work to mend physical and emotional traumas. This work is valuable – period. 

But we must concede that in 1972 this so-called new form of moving was not new. You can see a free-form style of movement predicated on leveraging people’s weight and bodies against one another in the Lindy Hop, for example. You can find all of the basic principles of sharpening one’s senses and a certain neurological readiness, in both Aikido and in many other eastern forms of martial arts. A key take-away for me is two-fold. First, we must honor the rich and varied history of this form that is jazz and is Aikido. And the second take-away is very practical: highlighted here by Paxton as he speaks to the humanistic aspect of contact. 

STEVE PAXTON: Are we drawing it all from our normal movement? And aestheticizing it and reducing it into some kind of essence like ballet, or some kind of essence like Cunningham, or some kind of essence like Graham, and I, so I became very interested in the pedestrian body. A number of us at Judson made works looking at the pedestrian body. And everybody said, “why don't you do something, why don't you, you know, like,” that was the problem. You know, it's almost unseeable, there is this idea about the fish not understanding water because there's no contrast between water and anything else. So the, the fish and the water are virtually one idea. And I think it's the same for us, in our normal bodies, you know, and that's where, it's contrast. It's when we're doing something else that we get a flash of how the body is working, you know, kind of catch ourselves like naturalists observing what the body is actually doing. How you pick something up, you know, how you do repetitive jobs, those moments when you have time to kind of contemplate the body. Into working with the other Judson-iers, working in lots of people’s, so taking on other people's ideas, which is sort of basic to dance, you know, being somebody else's, letting somebody else be your mind. And then back into this moment in, but also, let me take in the classes. In ‘64 in Tokyo I saw Aikido, you know, took a couple of Aikido classes there, came back to New York and studied Aikido for the rest of the 60s. Sometimes three times, three times a day, two classes a day, because they started at 6am and you only paid $20 and you could come as much as you wanted to. 

MAURA KEEFE: So was that showing up in your work at that time, do you think?

STEVE PAXTON:  No, no, no. In fact, I put a big taboo against that, you know, Aikido was Aikido and dance was dance. Then I somehow forgot that I did that. And by ‘72 Aikido was coming into my dance just because it was in my body. I still have material, as I said, of Merce’s, you know, from 30 some odd years ago in my body. It's in my nervous system, if not, my muscles aren't particularly trained to do it now. So I would probably tear myself apart if I attempted it, but I can feel the coordinations. So the same thing with Aikido, once those coordinations got embedded, I was helpless. They were, I was at their mercy. So, and I needed them actually because I needed to be able to tell people how to fall down at speed, you know. Not just gracefully schlumping to the floor, you know, and landing all the meaty parts so you don't make big noises. But, you know, diving into the floor, I had to be able to convey this. And so I needed some model about how it worked and what to do, or else I think we might have had contact fatalities by now or, you know, which fortunately, we have not. I don't know why. I think contact is safer than the average kitchen is. They say the kitchen is the, you know, how many accidents happen per population and which rooms. Contact seems to rely on reflexes that if they're a bit re-trained away from the constriction that we put on them to go through school, to be in society, to eat at restaurants, to, you know, be the kind of people that we should be. If we allow the extension, if we allow the rounding, if we change, if we change the reflex, in essence, then all of that momentum seems quite dealable with. 

MAURA KEEFE: But there is, I mean, it seems like there is some element of risk that, that you're constantly sort of testing the…

STEVE PAXTON: I think that we're…

MAURA KEEFE: the limits or... 

STEVE PAXTON: I, no, no, I, I don't think of it that way at all, that we're testing the limits of risk. I think we're erasing the risk so we can go a little bit further, but I don't think we… I mean, it's inherent in my teaching anyway, do not take risks, don't hurt yourself, be ready, be prepared at all times to take care of yourself and your partner, you know a kind of ethics of the situation. Because I think the barrier, I think the cause of accidents is senses and either too focused, in bad repair, or simply not expanded to cover the situation. And I think we focus our senses all the time, especially our eyes in this culture are trained things. I mean, what primitive man ever had his eyeballs going like this and in space for hours at a time. You know, it just, that wasn't the way eyes evolved. Eyes were working with hearing and directing the head and all that kind of thing, but it wasn't these rigorous exercises that we have to learn, we have to teach the muscles to do. And in doing that, we are busy inside in chairs and in our heads. So to, it’s, it's just, I think it's, I think it's innate a lot of this stuff. I think it occurs in other animals, contact improvisation. I'm called the founder, I think the finder or identifier of a, of particular mode of our naturally occurring movement possibilities is what happened. And the problem was how to teach urbanized bodies to be.

MAURA KEEFE: Because it's no longer natural, it's not like we're all rolling around, pushing each other, or…

STEVE PAXTON: Natural is just what's normal to you, isn't it really, you know? Like it's natural for us to sit in chairs. But it could be within a month natural for you to be squatting or kneeling. You know, it could be that if we just erased these chairs from our situation, we would get the pillows and rugs out, you know, that would then be natural.

JENNIFER EDWARDS: The last time I taught contact improvisation as a university course was in 2016 at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. The word ‘taught’ is problematic in that statement because one actually guides or facilitates a contact improv class. My class engaged in laboratory-style exercises that worked to build trust between the students and honed their skills – listening with eyes, ears, and skin – heightening their awareness of their neurology and breath. 

One of the challenges of Contact is that once you have tuned your senses into the group or to your partner, then you must release your will. As Paxton shared, there is no dominant or controlling partner in contact improvisation. This type of  exploration only works when all parties stop trying to make what they want to happen, happen – and instead create space for what is actually happening. Essentially contact is the art of following an impulse without thinking, of being so attuned to your fellow dancers that you know by sensing that everyone is safe and engaged in where that impulse leads. If you are a bit confused by this, you are having the experience that my students all had during the first few weeks of class. They wanted to ‘get it’ – intellectually. They wanted to do it ‘right’ – of course, they wanted to succeed in my class. 

And I’ll tell you what I told them. We all have the capacity to turn down the volume on our thinking brains while turning up our ability to listen and follow, without question to our collective unconscious. No one can tell you how to find it, but by the steady practice of showing up, and patiently releasing the need to control an interaction, many of my students found the magic that surfaces through contact improvisation. Some students just touched this wisdom momentarily, others unlocked a piece of themselves and never turned back. Those are the students that literally flew – dove, rolled, leapt, fell, and were always caught by the group, a partner or the floor. In my opinion, the world might be just a bit better if everyone could experience moments like this—moments that only, in my experience, Contact Improvisation can offer. 

I’d like to close by sharing Paxton’s response to an audience member’s question that I find particularly moving and relevant for this moment in time. 

STEVE PAXTON: I'm talking about the democracy between two people. Did I, through energy and exchange between two people find out a secret that I could share with you? Yes, it's one that was already known. It's one that was actually broadcast in the 60s loud and clear, but again, we colored it into meaninglessness as, you know, with our own misty interpretations. In Aikido they say “do it with love.” Now, that sounds so stupid, I'm sorry to lay that on you so bluntly, you know. It’s so meaningless and what actually, what does it cause you to, to think about your movement and how you know, it's like, “with love,” you know, like. So I, I resisted this idea for a long time just because it was so, you know, floppy as in, in language. But then I told you though, that this, this energy I'm talking about in the arm happens with the embrace or with the handshake. So that's a quality of energy that I'm talking about, that I'm interpreting this statement as having. So a very light extension is a very interesting place because it is one that you reach towards somebody you love, you know, with at the same time you're ready to receive. It's a very open state and it's one that we all know and it's one that, for some reason, has gotten relegated to certain partnerships that you have, you know. And you don't do it with trees and you don't do it with the room and you don't do it with your chair, you know, you don't. But in fact, it's a state of your body. And it's one that's extremely sensitive and receptive. And there's no reason not to use, as the Aikidoists do, simply to use it. So I mean, it sounds really mushy, but they mean it as a direct instruction that gives you a technically clear picture of how to move your body. 

[Closing music comes in, composed and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob's Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org, and of course through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us again soon, either online or onsite.